Bong Joon-ho
Photo by Nicolas Guerin

Bong Joon-ho: “The fear is hard to get rid of”

Short Profile

Name: Bong Joon-ho
DOB: 14 September 1969
Place of birth: Daegu, South Korea
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Director Bong, although your films are well-loved for their dark humor, they can also be cynical in their outlook. Would you describe yourself as a pessimist?

I don’t think I’m pessimistic at every point, but I want to be honest in the face of the reality that stands in front of us. With Parasite, my thinking was that mankind’s achieved such great development — like the mobile devices we see in front of us but if we think about the past 30 years, has the gap between rich and poor dissipated? Not really. I have a son myself, do I think things are going to improve in his generation? I don’t really think that either. That is the source of a lot of fear, actually. So I wanted to be honest with that fear and sadness and really deliver that.

Is that fear more prominent today, or is this something you’ve been thinking about for a while?

Well, I began developing this idea in 2013 which is already six years ago but of course the issue of gap between rich and poor, of economic polarization was not that different back then. I was working then on the post-production of Snowpiercer, which is also about class difference and class struggle, where the rich and poor inhabit different carriages on a train — so you could say I was already pretty much in the grip of this idea of class difference already. But with Parasite, I wanted the story to be more about my own surroundings, my own day-to-day surroundings.

“We are all aware of this gap between rich and poor, but what is fundamentally even more frightening is the fear that this won’t be resolved in the future.”

Apparently you were determined not to portray the stereotypical image of wealthy Korean families that comes to mind from film and television.

Right, especially in Korean TV shows and in particular soap operas, the conventional villains are so conspicuously greedy and treat the people below them with violence and incredible cruelty and just crush them. You know, in 1995 when I first saw Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine I was very surprised to see areas like that in Paris. I didn’t even know the banlieue existed. When I thought of Paris I always thought of the Champs Elysées and everyone drinking wine and listening to accordion music. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is another example. Korea is a very rich, very developed country but when a country becomes so wealthy, relatively that gap between rich and poor widens.

Unfortunately, this class struggle seems to be inevitable almost everywhere in the world.

This is something that applies to all countries, yes. Of course, there can be understanding and sympathy and communication between different classes, but I do think that it is very plausible things could turn out the way they do in the film. We are all aware of this gap between rich and poor and this is very sad and frightening, but what is fundamentally even more frightening is the fear I mentioned earlier, that this won’t be resolved in the future, in our children’s generation. That’s something we all feel, and it’s very hard to get rid of.

How do you ensure that that fear and emotion comes through in a real and human way? Does it come down to the actors’ emotions?

When I talk with actors as a director, I try my best to make every situation seem simple and immediate so they can take it emotionally. I don’t talk about, “Oh if you analyze the script, there is this political commentary.” I don’t think there is any need to discuss that. I always say things like, “Don’t you feel sorry for this character?” These instinctual conversations that I have with actors help their roles. But space can be just as important to the success of a film as the characters or the casting, I think.

What do you mean?

When I find a great location or think of a great location, I feel as excited as if I’d found a great actor! In my film Okja, for example, you start from a mountain in the countryside of Korea and end up on Wall Street in New York; it is a big journey that spreads out through multiple continents. Parasite could almost be a theater production, that is how concentrated the story is in space, where 90 percent of the story takes place in the two houses. That’s definitely a challenge I’ve never taken before. The sense of the vertical was very important for this film, whereas for Snowpiercer, the horizontal space was very important.

After the release of your Netflix film Okja in 2018, are you happy to come back to making a film for the cinema again?

When we made Okja, the cinematographer and I talked about how we should make people who watch this on their smartphones just give up watching the film; we wanted them to feel like they had no choice but to go to the theater or at least use a big screen projector to watch this film. We framed a lot of the shots so they would have no choice but to give up, like having an extreme long shot where the girl is really tiny on screen. So, I don’t think streaming is bad, and I would like to work with Netflix again, but ultimately the cinema provides the best film-watching experience because it is the only method and platform where the viewer can’t press the stop button.

Has this felt like a return to your roots in terms of scale? Both Okja and Snowpiercer were big-budget productions, whereas you’ve enjoyed a successful career making independent films.

I do feel I have come back to films of this size, this scale and budget, like Mother and Memories of Murder. Coming back to a smaller film gave me a lot of peace and made me feel I could pay more attention to the detail of the film. And because Snowpiercer and Okja had very high budgets, there are definitely other things as a director that I have to pour my energy into with those big budgets. With Okja, for example, here are around 320 super-pig shots, and I lost an incredible amount of energy on those visuals. For Parasite, I was very happy using that energy to pay attention to each and every character and the details of this film.

“There is a very specific kind of cinematic excitement that genre films can bring. And that is what I love about it as well.”

Which details made you especially proud?

I wanted to create a very delicate and detailed film where you would feel like you could even smell every single character. I consider myself a genre director. I think there is a lot of possibility for genre films to become political and there is that tradition within sci-fi. Since both Snowpiercer and Okja had very strong sci-fi colors, you could say they were very political films. With Parasite, the very basis of the story… It’s about the poor and rich so you can say that from the beginning it is very political, but I didn’t want this film to end up as just political commentary.

Why do you think genre films seem to be so popular these days?

Are they? As I am one of the filmmakers creating genre films and not a critic with a general overview of the trend or what is coming out, I’m glad to hear it. I am a huge fan of genre films and although I like to destroy or twist genre conventions, generally I operate within the boundaries of genre. There is a very specific kind of cinematic excitement that genre films can bring. And that is what I love about it as well, so I am glad to see it.